Extreme Weather Increases Toxic Waste Cleanup Costs

Environment Colorado

Extreme weather, caused in part by global warming, is increasing the health threat posed by the country’s most toxic waste sites, known as Superfund sites.  Superfund: In the Eye of the Storm, a new report from The Center for Health, Environment, and Justice (CHEJ) and released by Environment Colorado profiles the cleanup efforts at numerous Superfund sites across the nation, which have been affected by extreme weather events and hampered by funding shortfalls. 

In Colorado, the Summitville Superfund site in Rio Grande County has been plagued by low funding levels which significantly increase both environmental and human health hazards.  Today, acid mine drainage from the mines emit metal-laden water into surrounding communities. The river is used to irrigate more than 17,000 acres of farmland in the San Luis Valley, water livestock, and for many generations has been used for recreation, fishing and swimming.

“Extreme weather events fueled by global warming will increase the health threats and cleanup costs of our most toxic waste sites.  We need to protect our future by cleaning up the messes of the past and make sure there is enough funding to do so,” said Gavin Clark, Field Organizer for Environment Colorado.

Superfund: In the Eye of the Storm shows that the impact of extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods at Superfund sites further compounds the health threat and funding problems facing these locations. In the wake of these disasters, there was not enough funding to adequately investigate potential toxic exposures and health risks, leaving communities across the nation potentially exposed to unrecognized public health threats and making it difficult to discern the true extent of contamination.

In his budget proposal last month, President Obama called for the reinstatement of the polluter pays fee, a fee on chemical producing industries levied to replenish the cleanup fund.  However, it will be up to Congress to pass legislation to re-instate the fee.

“For too long, polluting companies have escaped responsibility for their toxic chemicals, leaving hundreds of hazardous waste sites to threaten our health and our water and cleanups unfunded and incomplete. Fortunately, President Obama has called on Congress to reinstate the polluter pays principle as part of the federal Superfund program — so we can hold polluters accountable and better protect our communities,” said Clark  “We urge Congress to follow the President’s lead and support his budget and the polluter pays fee,” Clark added.

The report finds that the Superfund trust fund is in dire condition.   The need for toxic exposure testing after extreme weather events has strained an already ailing budget.  This means even fewer sites are being cleaned up.

The decreased funding has led to a dramatic reduction in the number of sites cleaned up.

  • From 1997 to 2000, when the revenue from the polluter pays fee was still in the fund, the EPA averaged 87 completed cleanups a year.
  • In 2007, only 24 sites were cleaned up.

Colorado is home 18 Superfund sites.  There are currently 1,258 Superfund sites. 

“Contrary to popular perception, these toxic threats are not far away, or in ‘someone else’s’ neighborhood.  In fact, one in four Americans lives within three miles of a Superfund site.  We need to support Obama’s budget to get the funding we need to cleanup the nation’s worst toxic waste sites,” said Gavin Clark, Environment Colorado.